U, WB, Buena Vista lead U.S. majors o'seas

It’s a three-way fight for bragging rights in the U.S. studios’ overseas B.O. derby this year.

Three majors will each notch $1 billion in grosses outside North America — the first time that’s happened since 1999.

Through Dec. 9, Warner Bros. and Universal both had crossed $1 billion abroad, and Disney’s Buena Vista Intl. was closing in on that pinnacle.

It may be a bit early to break out the champagne in Burbank, but Warner Bros. is in pole position and appears to have the strongest year-end push, thanks to the meteoric “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which last week vaulted past “Pearl Harbor” to rank as 2001’s top earner internationally.

“Harry” just launched in South Korea and is yet to open in Hong Kong, Turkey, Poland and smaller Eastern European markets. On top of the $245 million in the kitty through Dec. 9, it could bank another $150 million by Dec. 31.

So the odds heavily favor a double home run for WB overseas as well as domestically.

“We’re very happy that this is Warner Bros.’ biggest year overseas, beating our previous record of $1.1 billion in 1993,” Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, president of international theatrical distribution, tells Variety. “It’s due to a tremendous team effort across all divisions.”

BVI (which took the crown as the highest-grossing studio internationally in five of the past seven years) expects a fast finish from “Monsters, Inc.,” which debuts this month in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Australia; “The Princess Diaries” in a few markets, including the U.K. and Germany; and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” BVI president Mark Zoradi predicts his division will wind the year at close to $1.1 billion.

U has fired most of its ammo and in the run home it’s riding on “American Pie 2’s” preems in Latin America and the laffer’s lusty holdover biz in Oz and Spain.

Every major relishes the kudos that stem from being the B.O. victor at home and offshore — while stressing that what really matters is the bottom line.

“At the end of the day, the corporation evaluates what we’ve done based more on our profitability than our grosses, (but) usually they go hand-in-hand,” Zoradi says.

That three studios each posted more than $1 billion seemingly points to a banner year for Hollywood, although Sony, Paramount and Fox/MGM are all coming in well below their 2000 results.

Indeed, hot streaks for U and DreamWorks look likely to propel United Intl. Pictures to a record year, with a projected final tally of $1.858 billion, edging past its previous high of $1.813 billion in 1996.

Local uprising

Yet all majors have had to compete with the rocketing popularity of indigenous films in markets including South Korea and France, and stand-outs such as Japan’s “Spirited Away” and Germany’s Western spoof “Manitou’s Shoe.”

Opinions differ about the impact of national hits on Hollywood’s market share. “We’re seeing local films take a higher percentage of the B.O. in many countries,” says Columbia TriStar Intl. senior exec VP Mark Zucker.

“That’s why Sony has started producing locally in Spain this year, and we’ve produced five Chinese films from our Hong Kong operation. We’re talking (about doing co-productions) in other countries; it’s important to get involved.”

UIP president-chief operating officer Andrew Cripps observes, “It’s been hard to keep our films onscreen in Korea because there’s been a new Korean film each week. Hollywood films definitely have been squeezed there.”

But Cripps contends that with far more screens available in markets such as France and Germany, the string of homegrown successes in those territories has expanded the B.O., so U.S. films have not been pinched.

Costs in hand

For years the U.S. majors have been socked by spiraling media costs in many territories. But the general softening in advertising markets and flagging economies has taken the sting out of that expense.

“We’ve been able to keep distribution costs in check this year,” Zoradi says, noting that ad rates have been flat or have risen only slightly and that local campaign spends are cheaper in view of the continuing strength of the greenback.

Apart from the boy wizard, WB Intl. has been buoyed by three titles that each surpassed $100 million this year: “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Cats & Dogs” and “Miss Congeniality” (the latter two including contributions from Village Roadshow’s markets).

In addition to “Pearl Harbor,” BVI’s money-makers included “Unbreakable” ($115 million) and “102 Dalmatians” ($94.3 million this year, $116 million total).

Zucker describes this as a “middle-of-the-road” year for Sony, highlighted by “Vertical Limit” ($126 million, dwarfing domestic’s $68.5 million), “Evolution” ($59.3 million) and “A Knight’s Tale” ($58 million).

It’s been an undistinguished year for New Line, but the company is certain to finish with a bang with the worldwide launch of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

New Line prexy of worldwide marketing and distribution Rolf Mittweg expects Peter Jackson’s fantasy to clock $70 million- $100 million from foreign markets by Dec. 31. What’s his target for the pic abroad? “I would be very disappointed if it doesn’t do around $300 million.”

Miramax had another solid year, buoyed by “Chocolat,” which made $81 million, “Scary Movie 2″ ($66 million) and “The Others” (which has brought in $37.2 million thus far from English-speaking territories and Latin America; indies are handling it elsewhere).

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more